Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Race to the Top follows tortuous, imprecise course

The Race to the Top is beginning to resemble a marathon with bizarre twists and turns that take runners in divergent directions with differing degrees of difficulty. Critics of varied political persuasions are warning of grievous flaws in the process and calling for the Race to be scrapped or changed dramatically.

Perhaps the most devastating critique comes from the Economic Policy Institute, a center-left research organization based in Washington, DC.

In an April 20 paper, “Let’s Do the Numbers,” retired marine engineer William Peterson and longtime New York Times columnist Richard Rothstein argue ObamaEd’s 500-point rating system for judging states’ applications for a share of a $4.35 billion stimulus stash “presents a patina of scientific objectivity, but in truth masks a subjective and somewhat random process.”

Forty states and the District of Columbia entered RTTT. Sixteen became finalists, and Delaware and Tennessee were designated in March as the sole winners of the first round, winning $100 million and $500 million, respectively. The Education Department hired 49 anonymous reviewers at $5,000 apiece to evaluate applications according to weighted metrics reflecting Secretary Arne Duncan’s priorities.

States received points for assorted “success factors,” such as approval by teacher unions and school boards, committing to national standards and assessments, using test data to evaluate teachers and principals, adopting federal turnaround strategies for the lowest-achieving schools, and welcoming high-performing charter schools.

Delaware scored 454.6 out of 500, and Tennessee 444.2, but the EPI study found the seeming precision in such marks was a sham. It concluded the selection of those two states was “subjective and arbitrary” and “more a matter of bias or chance” than proof of stellar reform efforts.

The analysts pointed to the dearth of scientific support for the points Duncan assigned to various factors. For instance, why should “Improving Student Outcomes” have a weight of just 5 percent (25 points out of 500), and why just 4 percent for “Using Data to Improve Instruction,” 6 percent for “Using Evaluations [of principals and teachers] to Inform Key Decisions,” and 3 percent for “Ensuring Equitable Distribution [of principals and teachers] in High-Poverty or High-Minority Schools”?

The entirely reasonable decision to increase each of those factors by just 3 percent (with weights of 25 other indicators reduced by just a half-point each to keep the total at 100 percent) would have resulted in Georgia beating out Tennessee. The analysts also showed that if Pennsylvania had been fully credited with its initiatives in early childhood and science education (both supposedly Obama priorities, though slighted in RTTT), the Keystone State would have been the big winner.

Some of the most egregious bias affected Massachusetts, which ranked 13th among the 16 finalists despite topping all states in rigor of standards and achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Massachusetts received scores higher than or equal to Tennessee on half of the 30 metrics. Why no prize? Massachusetts declined to commit to adopting the Obama administration’s national standards by next August. State leaders preferred to have public hearings on whether to embrace the national version. It was docked 15 (out of a possible 20) points on “Adopting Standards.”

“In sum,” the EPI analysis notes, “Massachusetts’ willingness to permit the public to comment on its academic standards, combined with a few quirks in the weighting system, cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.”

States can apply for future rounds of RTTT grants after amending their policies to conform more closely to the Obama/Duncan game plan. But such conformity would encourage more standardization under centralized authority as opposed to innovation and empowerment of education consumers in communities.

The one positive result of the Race to the Top has been to demonstrate that the federal government lacks the competence to influence elementary and secondary education for the better. Of course, the U.S. Department of Education has been proving that very point since its establishment 30 years ago. How many more years before the general public realizes Ronald Reagan had the right idea in seeking to close this monstrosity and return power and taxing authority to the local level?


Britain's blackboard jungle

What the Leftist horror of discipline has wrought

Dylan stands up, dashes across the room to snatch his friend’s pencil case and promptly tosses the contents into the air. When I order him to sit down, he laughs, climbs on to the window ledge and begins to hiss.

Some of the other children in the class of 14-year-olds join in. As I attempt to persuade Dylan to get down, another pupil, Richard, grabs his neighbour Rory by the neck and wrestles him to the floor. ‘Stop it, Richard,’ I shout, trying to pull them apart. His response is to reply: ‘Oi, Miss, you ain’t allowed to touch us. That’s assault, that is.’

His victim, meanwhile, scrambles back to his chair. The hissing has become jeering and a paper ball sails across the classroom, closely followed by someone’s PE kit.

It is a chaotic scene, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is in any way unusual. Like it or not, this is life in the average classroom of an average comprehensive.

And during the ten years that I’ve been teaching in state secondary schools, I can honestly say that the standard of behaviour has imploded.

You may shrug off bad behaviour as being down to a teacher’s inability to control their class but believe me, these days every state school teacher I know, regardless of ability, has been subject to swearing, physical fighting and constant disruption on nearly a daily basis.

What’s more, there are incidents of physical violence towards us too. I, personally, have been shoved aside by one 15-year-old pupil, who was annoyed at being kept for detention. I’ve had coins and pencils thrown at me and colleagues of mine have been bitten, kicked in the stomach and on the legs.

None of the children who assaulted us was expelled. These are the reasons why I am now seriously considering spending at least £9,000 a year to send my four-year-old daughter to private school when the time comes.

As a staunch supporter of the state system, this is something I never believed I would even consider. But my ideals of equality have been well and truly trampled under foot. Behaviour in many schools is now so appalling that I just cannot risk my daughter having to witness the things that as a teacher I have grown depressingly accustomed to...

You may think back to your own schooldays and recall pupils being cheeky and showing no enthusiasm for learning.

But, believe me, long gone are the days when disobedience amounted to a crafty fag behind the bike sheds or reading a magazine under the desk instead of copying out notes on Macbeth. Now, shouting and swearing at staff is commonplace, and you can utter a perfectly reasonable request to be met with a fury that beggars belief.

Ask a pupil to sit down or be quiet and chairs might be kicked over, desks sent flying — followed by the obligatory foul-mouthed tirade.

Over the past ten years, I have been an English teacher in three state secondary schools in the South-East. Last year, for the first time in my career, I walked out of a classroom.

Halfway through the lesson, in a school classed by Ofsted as ‘good’, I packed my bags and left because the behaviour in that room was so dreadful that had I stayed I would have either burst into tears or thumped one of my 15-year-old pupils.

That day, my carefully prepared handouts had been screwed up and thrown around the room as children ran about jumping on chairs and chucking one another’s bags around.

One of the boys, Mark, a persistent troublemaker, refused to sit his place. He plonked himself down in someone else’s chair, feet on the desk and whipped out his phone.

When I tried to confiscate it, he simply laughed at me. ‘**** off! You ain’t having that,’ he jeered.

When another boy, Andrew, started chucking paper aeroplanes across the room and the rest of the class started whistling and chanting raucously, I walked out. I’d had enough. I was at breaking point.

It might not sound as if anything particularly outrageous occurred that day. But what had broken me wasn’t the bad behaviour, but the personal nature of it.

Children have always been mischievous, and teachers can cope with that, but what’s new is the proliferation of swearing and deliberate attempts to humiliate us.

The first time a pupil swore at me was five years ago. It was a girl — don’t be fooled, they can be just as bad as boys — and I had asked her to leave my classroom as she wasn’t supposed to be in my lesson. The response was: ‘F*** off, you sad b****!’

I was frozen to the spot with shock. But now I can honestly say that perhaps three days in every five I’m sworn at or personally insulted in some way or another.

You might wonder why we teachers stand for it, but largely our hands are tied. Take this example — one pupil swore at me, hit a fellow pupil over the head, tipped pencil cases to the floor, called another a ‘w*****’.

I complained to the head teacher, only to be told the pupil in question is attending anger management classes. When I pointed out that their behaviour was preventing all of her classmates from learning, I was told that there was nothing anyone could do. We just had to curb the behaviour as best we could.

So how have we descended to this level? In my opinion, the Government’s policy of inclusion — whereby even extremely disturbed and aggressive children are taught in mainstream schools — is largely to blame.

Special schools — where children with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties were educated in tiny classes by teachers trained to deal with their complex needs — have been closed. Now, those children are educated in mainstream comprehensives by people like me, who just aren’t equipped to deal with them.

I’ve grown accustomed — as have my colleagues — to watching groups of teenagers in hoodies marauding around the school, banging on classroom windows, opening the doors and shouting insults into lessons.

Sometimes they even beckon other children out of classes to have a fight or disrupt someone else’s lessons....

In the past few years, schools have started to spend tens of thousands of pounds employing counsellors to teach youngsters ‘anger management’. Inclusion in this nebulous group gives pupils carte blanche to behave in any way they please, without having to take the slightest responsibility for their actions. And what of the parents?

Complain to them about their children’s behaviour and it’s quite likely that you’ll be met with a shrugging indifference. On one occasion, I rang a mother to complain about her daughter’s abusive language and was told to ‘lighten up’.

Other parents become angry and foulmouthed themselves. My friend Joanna, a tiny woman of five foot, was screamed at and threatened in her classroom by an enraged father. She’d kept his daughter in for a detention and was accused of ‘picking on’ the girl. With role models like that, it’s little wonder that so many of our children are violent thugs.

As for expulsion, schools are loath to do this to unruly pupils because there are financial penalties.

And the policy of inclusion has meant that children expelled from one comprehensive on Friday afternoon will just turn up on Monday morning at another one five miles down the road. It is no wonder that a survey of more than 1,000 teachers carried out by the teachers’ union ATL in March found more than 50 per cent had experienced verbal abuse this academic year and almost 40 per cent had been intimidated.

These figures, shocking though they are, I believe, underestimate the problem. Many teachers don’t like to admit that they’ve been abused and intimidated, feeling that somehow it reflects badly on them rather than on the pupils who push, shove and swear their way through the school day.

My friend, Carol, confides that violence in the classroom has got much worse. ‘I was knocked over by some boys shoving their way out of the room after I’d tried to keep them in for a lunchtime detention. One of them punched me hard on the arm first,’ she tells me.

She is now considering quitting the profession after 15 years. Even more shockingly, another colleague, Mary, was punched in the face after a 13-year-old lost his temper when she confiscated his mobile phone.

I’ve worked in schools that Ofsted has deemed to be failing, and the behaviour was atrocious. I’ve also worked in schools that like Peter Harvey’s were rated ‘good’ by Ofsted, and the behaviour was equally dreadful. Many of my teaching colleagues admit almost shamefacedly to educating their children in the private sector.

For those of us who’ve spent our lives teaching in comprehensives, there is a sense that we are letting the side down by turning to private schools for our own children. But we see what’s happening in our classrooms and we are left with little choice.

Hence my plans for my own daughter. The difference is that no private school would tolerate behaviour even half as bad as that now taken for granted in state schools...


British Private pupils are ten times as likely to gain top high school passes

The gulf in standards between state and private schools has been laid bare by figures showing fee-paying pupils are nearly ten times more likely to gain top GCSE grades demanded by elite universities.

Just one in 45 pupils educated at a comprehensive gains five A* grades at GCSE - the benchmark increasingly demanded by universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham and Edinburgh.

In contrast, one in five pupils who went to a private school achieved the five A*s standard which is required before the universities even consider A-level results.

The figures triggered renewed concern that bright pupils are being failed by the comprehensive system. An independent school head who uncovered the figures warned that clever state school pupils were being 'disenfranchised'. Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, called for greater use of setting and streaming in schools.

The figures were originally released by the Department for Children, Schools and Families following a Commons written question from the Tories.

They show that in 2007, the last year for which figures are available, just 2.2 per cent of comprehensive pupils - or 12,094 - gained five A*s at GCSE. This compares with 20.5 per cent of independent school pupils - or 9,575. The figures suggest the gulf has widened slightly since 2003.

Elite universities including many in the prestigious Russell Group increasingly demand a string of As and A*s at GCSE.

Mr Cairns warned that state schools are too focused on making sure pupils get the C grades needed for the school to do well in league tables, rather than pushing them on to get A*s. He said the Government should not put the trends down to academic selection at private schools, since many were not as selective as is widely thought.

'What's striking is that the percentage achieving five A*s in comprehensive schools was low when Labour took over, and remains low,' he said. 'Young people are being disenfranchised. State schools are not focusing enough on the brightest. The whole education system is too focused on the C/D borderline. 'A lot of bright children are not being pushed to get those A*s they actually need.'

Michael Gove, Tory education spokesman, said: 'The current education system is unfair. 'Richer parents can buy a good education via private schools or by paying for an expensive house in the right catchment area. Too often the poorest pupils are left with the worst schools.'


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